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Candidates look to makepop-culture connection

No presidential candidate has ridden a bigger pop-culture wave than John Kerry. He has garnered a substantial amount of support from performers such as Bruce Springsteen, Howard Stern, Don Imus, and Jon Stewart -- people who could, by dint of their diehard fan bases, actually sway undecided voters.

Given the primacy that pop culture has played in recent elections -- from Bill Clinton playing the sax on ''The Arsenio Hall Show" in 1992 to George W. Bush kissing the host on ''Oprah" in 2000 -- Kerry's supporters might expect him to be doing better than he is.

It may be, though, that all the pop-culture hoopla in the world isn't going to have much effect without a populist candidate to ride the wave. Riding a Harley-Davidson onto the ''Tonight Show" stage notwithstanding, Kerry may not be the man to do that, given that his persona is more patrician than populist.

By contrast, Bush plays the populist card as well as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton before him. Whatever people think of his policies, polls reveal that people perceive him as a regular guy.

Historians note that there has long been a populist strain in American politics. Folksiness has played well, from Abraham Lincoln's humble log-cabin beginnings to Bush clearing brush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

For the past 25 years or so, since Reagan's election, popular culture has been crucial in framing the debate over who is perceived to be the most populist of the candidates.

Springsteen has been at the forefront of mobilizing rock stars touring the battleground states in support of Kerry. Some of the singers, such as Bonnie Raitt and Keb' Mo', probably have a disproportionate number of Kerry fans to begin with. Others, including John Mellencamp and the Dixie Chicks, have had a more diverse fan base.

Springsteen, a Will Rogers figure if ever there was one, has been trying his best to pass the populism on to Kerry. In a Cleveland concert this month, he went into his preacher persona during ''Mary's Place" and, according to Jeff Vrabel in Billboard.com, he ''cured" someone of being a Republican and then declared, ''When John Kerry is president, beer will flow freely from the taps of even the most modest American homes! When John Kerry is president, there will be a ban on all cellphone communications!"

But does that image square with people's perceptions? Jon Stewart, the host of ''The Daily Show," is a Kerry supporter, but he regularly pokes fun at the senator's efforts to play the populist. Kerry said on ''The Today Show" that he is a longtime hunter, but the footage of his hunting trip last week raised eyebrows even among his supporters. It may not be Michael Dukakis in a tank, but it isn't Reagan on horseback, either.

Bush, by contrast, may not need a Will Rogers figure in his corner because people perceive him to be one himself. Take his speech at this year's Republican National Convention: ''People sometimes have to correct my English. I knew I had a problem when Arnold Schwarzenegger started doing it. Some folks look at me and see a certain swagger, which in Texas is called 'walking.' "

Bush clearly benefited from having the Terminator, a.k.a. the governor of California, on his side. Bush got a significant bounce out of the convention, and Schwarzenegger's speech probably accounted for some of it. Having athletes such as Red Sox hero Curt Schilling, who endorsed Bush on ''Good Morning, America" this week, doesn't hurt, either.

In a New York Times column, Frank Rich suggested that the Republicans had been successful in portraying Bush as a regular guy and Kerry as ''a girly man."

Kerry bounced back with strong performances in the presidential debates. Here, too, though, polls indicated that people liked Bush's regular-guy persona and didn't fully trust Kerry's attempts at sounding like a man of the people. Kerry doesn't help matters any when he goes windsurfing and says that one of his favorite sports figures is bicyclist Greg LeMond.

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who cites Andrew Jackson as the first American presidential candidate with a populist image, says, ''Managers of campaigns have felt that if you can garb your candidate in a populist persona, it's more than a case that people will vote for him, it creates an aura around him. But when a candidate tries to put on some costume that he doesn't seem comfortable with, then people start to react negatively. . . . The general feeling is: If it's at all going to look artificial, it's best not to do it."

The irony is that Bush's background is just as privileged as Kerry's. Says Goodwin, ''Bush senior had a patrician air. Bush junior, by becoming the rebel in the family, created a different, new persona that people like and latch onto."

But what's so important about populism and pop culture, anyway? Philip Roth's new bestseller, ''The Plot Against America," which posits a Charles Lindbergh victory over Franklin Roosevelt in 1940, is in part a warning about what happens when the electorate attributes more importance to a candidate's emotional appeal than to his intelligence and ability to make policy.

As important an issue as that is, the contest between now and Tuesday might pivot on the race to find the equivalent of kissing Oprah's cheek.

Ed Siegel can be reached at siegel@globe.com.

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